The US and China are contesting for dominance over the exploitation of natural resources in space, such as mining for valuable metals in the asteroids, which could potentially result in further militarization of the space.
According to Morgan Stanley, the space industry, which is currently valued at around $400 billion, is projected to reach $1 trillion in value in less than two decades. This has also prompted a competition between great powers such as US and China, who are vying for supremacy in space.
In early April, the US Department of Defense (DoD) released a report noting the increasing pace and scope of competitor space programs from China and Russia across nearly all major categories, including communications, remote sensing, navigation, and science and technology demonstration.
“China and Russia value superiority in space, and as a result, they’ll seek ways to strengthen their space and counter space programs and determine better ways to integrate them within their respective militaries,” Kevin Ryder, Defense Intelligence Agency senior analyst for space and counter space, said on April 12 at the Pentagon.
Ryder also warned that as both the countries seek to expand their space exploration, if successful, these efforts will probably lead to attempts by Beijing and Moscow to exploit the natural resources on the off-planet assets.
Shortly after that, China announced asteroid impactor/deflection plans that would involve building an asteroid monitoring and defense system and a technical experiment to closely track and attack a threatening asteroid to alter its orbit as early as 2025.
While the plan was revealed as a roadmap for defense against near-Earth asteroids, there are also commercial benefits of being able to find and track asteroids, as they can then be mined for precious metals potentially worth trillions of dollars.
In 2017, Ye Peijian, the Chief Commander and Chief Designer of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, revealed details of a plan that could potentially put an unmanned craft on an asteroid and mine the rock for metals like palladium, platinum, and others that are used in items such as smartphones and automobiles.
“Water and platinum group metals that are abundant on asteroids are highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint,” Noah Poponak, a Goldman Sachs analyst, noted in an investor note.
“According to a 2012 Reuters interview with Planetary Resources, a single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25bn- $50bn worth of platinum,” the analyst added.
Also, on April 11, NASA unveiled a spacecraft it is planning to launch in the summer of 2022 to investigate the asteroid Psyche 16, potentially laden with valuable heavy metals.
The spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, before making an approximately 3-year trip to Psyche 16, an asteroid that could be a target for future space mining missions.
According to NASA’s estimates, the total value of heavy metals on the roughly 173-mile-wide Psyche 16 is somewhere around $700 quintillion!
Battle For Dominance Over Asteroid Mining
Brandon J Weichert, a prominent American Geopolitical expert and the author of ‘Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower’ warned recently that there is an ongoing battle between the US and China to dominate the asteroid mining industry, which could break out into an all-out space war between the two powers.
“If you can start mining those rare minerals, you’ve got a significant advantage over the rest of the world and China wants to get that advantage first,” said Weichart.
Last year, A Chinese space mining start-up, Origin Space, launched a robot prototype, the NEO-01, into low Earth orbit (LEO) to capture and destroy space debris and eventually mine asteroids as well.
For years, Chinese scientists have been proposing plans for asteroid mining.
For example, in May 2017, Ye Peijian proposed a plan to capture an asteroid by landing and anchoring a spacecraft on its surface, fire up multiple rocket boosters and project it into the moon’s decade, after which it could be mined.
Also, Li Mingtao, a professor at the National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, proposed a plan in 2018 to use a constellation of satellites in orbit around the sun that would search for asteroids, wrap a massive bag around an asteroid, and ferry it back to Earth with the use of some type of a heat shield that would keep the asteroid from burning.
Li and his team revealed that they had formulated this plan based on an unnamed near-Earth asteroid that’s about 20 feet across, probably weighing hundreds of tons, and around 60 million miles away – approximately two-thirds the distance between the Earth and the sun.
Chaitanya Giri, a Space Tech Consultant with Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) thinks that these plans are “too distant, unviable and unnecessary.”
“Getting any small solar system body into Earth’s atmosphere will elicit a mass extinction event. I am sure China too does not want an Earth with no life on it,” Giri told EurAsian Times.
“China will first demonstrate, as it has announced, the asteroid impactor/deflection mission to be launched around 2025. This mission will be part of its larger plan to develop a Near-Earth Object defense system.”
China Emulating The US
When asked about China’s technological progress related to asteroid mining, Giri said, “During its Chang’e-2 mission, China’s second mission to the Moon, CNSA already had demonstrated the ability to do a fly-by of a near-Earth asteroid.
After finishing the mission objectives on the Moon, Chang’e-2 was made to travel to asteroid Toutatis, and it did a wonderful job there.”
“With the subsequent Chang’e missions, CNSA acquired the competence to land on the Moon and return samples. Now, it has to repeat the drill onto a much smaller asteroid. It has the bells and whistles to go to an asteroid,” he continued.
While China’s space technology lags decades behind the US, the Chinese government has allocated enormous resources to its space program with the aim of bridging the gap.
“If you compare the same with the US, NASA has an unparalleled experience of touching asteroid surface, shared only by the Japanese. So in terms of ‘been there and done that’ the US is ahead of China. But China is fast galloping there, perhaps emulating the US,” said Giri.
According to Giri, exploiting extra-territorial resources will be a hotly contested enterprise and he, therefore, stresses the need for a regulatory framework.
“Wherever there is resource-economy involved, there will be militarization. It is inevitable. What we need to think of is, how do we extend rules, codes, and regulations while promoting such resource utilization in a sustainable manner,” Giri said.